Mother-of-pearl Gaming Counters

Tales and Treasures from the rich legacy of the Hudson’s Bay Company

Written by Amelia Fay

Posted November 16, 2022

Chinese mother-of-pearl gaming counters made their way into the European market around 1700. They quickly became a popular trade item among the elites, because they were very expensive to acquire.

Gaming counters would be used either to keep score or for bidding during card games. Early varieties have distinctly Chinese designs with fine cross-hatching patterns and are very thin and delicate.

By about 1840, when demand appears to have greatly decreased, counters became much thicker with less elaborate designs. Producers tried to make more counters to attract more business, thus reducing quality, but trends in Europe were shifting from card games that required counters to games like whist that did not need them.

These counters are still quite thin but lack some of the fine artwork seen in the earlier counters, so they were likely made shortly before the decline. They come from the Fort Victoria warehouse, in what is now downtown Victoria, and were likely brought in as trade goods.

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Amelia Fay is a curator of the HBC Collection at the Manitoba Museum

This article originally appeared in the December 2022-January 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

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